North America is a Process

Jennifer Jeffs considers how the continent has integrated - and how it hasn't - nearly 20 years after NAFTA.
By: /
April 3, 2012
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While the trilateral "three amigos" meeting that took Stephen Harper to Washington Monday may be merely a periodic neighbourly gesture, it provides an opportunity to reflect upon what post-NAFTA North America actually is.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was an outcome, the product of trade negotiations between the United States and its only two continental neighbours, countries different in size, influence and temperament. Today, in contrast - nearly 20 years later - it is more useful to regard North America as a process, a means to achieve certain goals, than as a product. It is a process that involves communities of interest where productive links can be, and often are, forged between business leaders, policy-makers, journalists, and researchers on issues of importance to the three countries and beyond. The problem is that these links and processes have limited use and impact due to their lack of institutional context and support.

Areas of common concern for the three North American countries have been listed many times, often in these pages. Security, energy, climate change, health care, demographics, food security, and competitiveness are the most obvious. In each of these areas, progress made by any one of the North American neighbours will carry implications for at least one of the others. Why then, do we not work more closely together, so advances accomplished by any of the neighbours would benefit the others?

Well, we often do, but to ensure the results have impact, we need to institutionalize the ways we collaborate better. Collaborative ventures between the three countries do exist. The North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, for example, has accomplished a good deal on a very modest budget, but it has not connected sufficiently with many of the groups with shared interests in the three countries. There are numerous initiatives in play dealing with energy in North America involving experts from the three countries and combining private sector, policy, and research communities. While all worthy in their own right, a co-ordinating mechanism would avoid duplication of efforts, leading to greater progress and more valuable outputs.

NAFTA represented commitments by the American, Canadian and Mexican governments to do less rather than more, allowing markets to function more autonomously while relying on a North American economic system that was well advanced before the trade agreement was ratified. As the global economy became increasingly competitive, many Canadian, American and Mexican firms developed integrated production and distribution systems to capture greater efficiencies. Companies created continental systems, locating units in strategic sites and linking them via highly effective logistics-transportation systems. Many service industries also rely on continental networks and linkages. Yet, oddly, we understand little of all this, depending deeply on something we don't know much about.

In the post-NAFTA era we need to focus serious attention on learning more about how North America works, which factors drive our competitive advantage and which might hinder it. In order for a globally competitive North America to persist in the next half century, deep thinking is needed now about how it would look, and how to make it look that way. We need to stop referring to ourselves as "North American trading partners." We are production partners, as well as security, climate change, energy, health, etc. partners.

The Canada-U.S. Chamber of Commerce fell apart years ago and the North American Competitiveness Council's influence was damaged by its association with the apparently sovereignty-threatening Security and Prosperity Partnership. But these are not good excuses for the strange fact that no broadly-based North American business-focused organization exists today. It is surely time that such an organization - a North American Chamber of Commerce, perhaps? - be created, networked with business and workers associations, regional bodies, and business and policy schools.

Given recent deadlocks on specific North American issues, perhaps we should be thinking more about governance. The Keystone XL pipeline and the hold-up over the second Detroit-Windsor bridge are obvious examples of our inability to make decisions on urgent matters without institutional frameworks. NAFTA veered away from institutional innovation and the impetus for integration was largely bottom-up through the 1990s, driven by changes in corporate structure and strategy, not by a continental vision.

Now is the time to start thinking - together - about decision-making and implementation frameworks at various levels, including between national capitals, significant regional cities, and states and provinces. North America is perfectly poised to set a global precedent for collaboration on global challenges by combining a variety of political strategies - from sub-national initiatives led by elected officials, to research partnerships on various scales, to business and NGO associations. This is more than the photo opportunity provided by this week's North America Summit.

This essay originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen. Photo courtesy of Reuters.